Exclusive Excerpt: Yo La Tengo Interviewed By Actor Michael Shannon

Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.

For three decades, Yo La Tengo has been one of the most important, diverse, influential and, well, best bands on the planet. Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew (along with former member Dave Schramm) revisit their classic Fakebook album on its 25th anniversary with latest LP Stuff Like That There, an odds-and-sods collection of covers, reworkings and new songs. MAGNET had Oscar-nominated actor—and longtime YLT fan—Michael Shannon sit down with Kaplan, Hubley and McNew to talk about their little corner of the world.

Yo La Tengo. “I have it.” Along with being one of the most formidable three-pieces in recent rock history, they indisputably have one of the greatest band names, as well. So banal yet exotic; so ethereally ambiguous, capable of embodying optimism and pessimism in equal measure. What do they have? The answers? The solutions? Or some affliction of the soul? All I can say is, after I heard I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One for the first time, they had my undivided attention. This band seems capable of inhabiting so many different realms, despite their claim that they aren’t terribly proficient at playing their instruments. On their new release, Stuff Like That There, they present yet another wonderland of popular and obscure covers, the occasional new song and, yes, covers of their own songs, which is where things get really interesting. Because when you listen to the new version of “Deeper Into Movies,” you realize you have aged quite a bit since the first version. Not just in years, but miles traveled, thoughts and feelings collected and expelled. And so has the band. And the song you used to rage to is now the song you listen to whilst sitting in your armchair sipping an IPA and staring out the window. And it’s the same song! That’s what Yo La Tengo has. I don’t know what it’s called, but I need it. Recently, I sat down to chat with them. I had no idea what to ask, even though I had been thinking about it for two weeks. So, here it is. —Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon: So one night—this is years ago—Gary (Wilmes) calls me and he says, “I’m hanging out with Yo La Tengo at this bar—do you wanna come by?” Because he knew I was a fan. I said, “Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute.” Then I came by, and I didn’t know what to say. I was just kind of sitting there … and then after 20 minutes or so, I was like, “Well, nice to meet you.” Then I left. Do you keep up with Gary? Do you still see him occasionally?
Ira Kaplan: It’s been a while since we saw Gary.

Shannon: How did you guys know Gary?
Kaplan: Through Jon (Benjamin). Did you ever see the Midnight Pajama Jam?

Shannon: No.
Kaplan: Do you know Jon Benjamin, too?

Shannon: Oh, yeah.
Kaplan: A thing they did together was a talk show where Jon Benjamin was the host and Jon Glaser was the co-host voicing two hand puppets—an eagle named Scott Fellers and an Octopus named Lumpy. And Gary was their bandleader for a while. He was replaced finally; I guess he became too busy for that. He did it in a Star Wars
James McNew: In a C-3PO mask.
Kaplan: And he would just lip-synch or mime—you know, he’d have a Casio—but it would always just be the Star Wars theme.

Shannon: Could he play the Star Wars theme? Some of those Casios have pre-recorded …
Kaplan: So, yeah, that’s how we know Gary.
McNew: I played Gary’s son in one production of the show. I also had a mask.
Kaplan: It was right across the street, wasn’t it? What was that place called?
Georgia Hubley: Yeah, it was.
McNew: It was a live show.
Kaplan: Marquee?
Hubley: I don’t know.
McNew: It started at that place up the street, which I think finally became The Daily Show studio or something.
Kaplan: Oh, yeah, I think you’re right.
McNew: The one you did was in Brooklyn.
Kaplan: No, the one I did was across the street. I missed the one in Brooklyn.
Shannon: But I remember meeting you, because I was thinking about it: That spot must have been around here somewhere. I was thinking, “I hope I have more to say now than I did that night. Because if it’s like that night, then it’s not gonna be a very good interview.” I think that’s actually what it was—it must have been after you guys had done that show.
Hubley: We really haven’t seen Gary in ages, actually. We saw him in a play the most recent time.

Shannon: Did you see Gatz?
Kaplan: Yeah.

Shannon: Wow, what’d you make of that?
McNew: Amazing.

Shannon: Yeah. I never had eight hours to make it through. How did you guys? You must be terribly busy all the time.
Hubley: We weren’t then. There’s no way we could do it now. [Laughs]
McNew: You were busy as hell that day, though; you watched a play for eight hours.
Shannon: Now they have The Sound And The Fury going on.
Kaplan: We saw that one, too.

Shannon: Would you recommend it?
Kaplan: Yeah, I’ve never read it. I think I probably tried and got like a page into it and went back to a comic book. But it’s amazing; the night we were there, they happened to have a panel talk afterward with John Collins and a couple of scholars, and I felt like I really should have started reading it that night.
McNew: But they don’t do the whole book, right? Just the first part.
Hubley: Yeah, and it’s like two hours.
McNew: Did you ever do any long-form or experimental type stuff?

Shannon: None of that, no. Not to that extent. But I’m a big fan of this playwright named Eugène Ionesco—last year I did a show of his called The Killer, out in Brooklyn in a theater for a new audience. That’s a pretty long show, pretty bizarre.
Kaplan: Rhinocéros?

Shannon: I’ve never done Rhinocéros. I’ve seen it. But I’ve never done it. You’re very cultured.
Kaplan: Highly cultured band.

Shannon: There’s a really interesting dichotomy, I’ve noticed, between your music—which a lot of times seems to be very emotional and quite moving—and the things that I read about online and the things you write and the people you hang out with: You seem to be constantly searching for humor and good times. I don’t know how to put it, but it’s this kind of interesting juxtaposition. You listen to one of your albums; you wouldn’t think that you guys like to hang out with Jon Glaser or somebody. I guess it kind of makes sense.
McNew: I think those guys, their work is intensely personal. You totally laugh more at them than you do at our reference. Just the way Jon Benjamin will say anything and the way Jon Glaser will, too …
Kaplan: As long as he’s wearing a mask. [Laughs]

Shannon: Like one of my favorite characters of all time is Ben on Dr. Katz, one of the characters that Jon (Benjamin) voiced.
Kaplan: I remember watching it and liking it and going back and realizing, “Wow, I think I’ve met everybody on this show.”
Hubley: Were you ever on that show?

Shannon: No, I didn’t break that threshold. It was a little bit before I had the juice to get on something like that. So, there’s some pretty big numbers being thrown around here, like 30th anniversary, 25th anniversary of Fakebook. Does it seem like you’ve been doing it this long?
Kaplan: Sometimes. [Laughs] Some days.
Hubley: Not really. Not to be … I mean, it does kind of take me by surprise how long it’s been, that’s a really, really, really long time. I don’t even feel like I’m that old … which, obviously, I’m older. [Laughs]

Shannon: Maybe something about the fact that it’s music and it always stays vital versus working in an office for 30 years, which makes you feel like you’re being attacked by vampires. It’s that feeling of doing what you’ve always wanted to do.
Hubley: Yeah, you know, we pretty much do what we want. We do different things, and we do a lot of different things. Sometimes maybe too many in one week. But it makes it more interesting and it doesn’t ever feel … sometimes touring can feel like a lot, for me anyway.

Shannon: You hear that a lot—touring’s a real gauntlet. I think as like a fan out in the audience, the fans are going, “This is the greatest night of my life,” and you guys are out there like, “Hmmm … ” I guess when you’re actually up there performing, it feels different.
Kaplan: I’m not sure we all feel the same way about it. For me, right now, I feel like we’ve really got a lot of very different things going on simultaneously. It just felt kind of overwhelming at times. And I think, consequently, touring can be one of the most relaxing things to do because it’s only one thing. You wake up and even though you can be tired or something, the focus is so much easier. Georgia has more difficulty being away from home for a long time than I do. I’m happier to be out there for extended periods of time, I think.

Shannon: Right, the regimented nature of it, you enjoy. I feel that way when I’m doing a play; I know what my day is gonna be. It’s gonna finish this way, and some people don’t like repetition, but I’ve never minded repetition, really. It’s a good way to figure out what you’re doing. What are some of these other things?
Kaplan: We just started a movie score like a week ago. We’ve been working on that pretty much every day.
Shannon: Is this the first time?
Kaplan: No, we’ve done them a good amount for the past 10 years or so. We do them all ourselves at our place in Hoboken. We have a little recording setup, and we all kind of huddle around the screen and watch the picture and just kind of compose. That doesn’t really seem like the right word, but I guess technically that’s what we’re doing. It’s fun. It’s a really fun, interesting way to make music, as opposed to just jamming and the way we usually make music. I really enjoy it.

Shannon: It’s a real tightrope, because it takes so little to make such a big effect. I had a film recently that had a score that was just way over the top and overwhelmed the entire movie. And the director insisted on it, like, “This is a real old-fashioned score, it’s an orchestra; they didn’t make it on a computer or anything.” And I’m like, “You don’t understand—you’re ruining the movie.” But a lot of the best scores are just a few notes, kinda like a haiku. It’s funny—you can really get into a scene and think, “Oh, I have so many ideas,” and while you’re doing them, they probably seem like amazing ideas. But marry them to the film …
Kaplan: I think we do that without movies, too. When we’re making a record, we try to keep an open mind as far as, like, “Well let’s take out the drums.” Or, “Let’s take out this entire instrument and see how it sounds.” Just change parts that one of us was singing just to hear it. We try to stay open to trying new things just for the sake of trying.